November 16, 2018

Davis Loyalists Give Cruz Cold Shoulder

As the Oct. 7 recall election enters its frantic home stretch, the evening of Sept. 26 found Gov. Gray Davis sitting on the bimah at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, participating in Rosh Hashanah services.

This was no last-ditch campaign ploy — Davis has attended High Holiday services at the synagogue for years and, according to election experts, most Jews seem likely to vote "no" on the recall to keep the beleaguered governor in power. Despite Davis’ lack of charisma and reputation as a fundraising machine beholden to monied interests, many consider him a trusted supporter of Jewish causes who deserves to keep his job.

Because of that devotion, Jews have been slow to embrace the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to replace Davis should the recall succeed. Bustamante, who defied the wishes of Davis and the Democratic establishment by jumping into the fray, has further alienated some Jews by appearing to focus more on winning votes for himself than on defeating the recall.

Many Jewish Democrats publicly support Bustamante, though some privately lash out at him for undercutting Davis. The governor has so far refused to endorse Bustamante as a replacement candidate, much to the lieutenant governor’s chagrin.

"I am not a Democrat, but have plenty of friends who are and they were incensed at what they perceived to be the actions of an opportunist and not a loyal party member [Bustamante]," said Lee Alpert, an attorney who held several high positions in former Mayor Richard Riordan’s administration.

Bustamante, in a written statement, told The Journal that he entered the race because he thought Democrats needed an "option besides voting no on the recall." If elected, he promised to continue Davis’ policies of protecting the environment and abortion rights in California.

Bustamante also said he cares about Israel, promoting tolerance and diversity and "representing those who often have no voice in government."

Those positions seem to have resonated with several prominent Democratic politicians.

Former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said Bustamante has long-favored funding for senior centers, health-care for the indigent and other issues popular among Jews. In his view, Bustamante is a friend of the Jews.

"In all my dealings with him behind closed doors and everywhere else, I’ve never detected anything, zero, zip, but wholehearted support for our community," he said.

Still, Bustamante’s refusal to take a strong public stand against some of the more radical ideas espoused by MEChA, a Latino student group to which he belonged and whose founding documents call for the return of the southwestern United States to Mexico, has raised red flags.

"I think he’s a terrible candidate whose best qualification is that he has a good radio voice," said Republican political consultant Arnold Steinberg. "I think he’s a provincial, parochial candidate who refuses to reach out."

Steinberg, who is not advising any of the recall candidates, said Bustamante’s reticence about MEChA could be read as an attempt to pander to Latinos or could mean that he "believes some of that crap."

When asked about the student group’s more controversial writings, Bustamante said he doesn’t believe California and the western United States are occupied territories.

"I joined MEChA as a young Latino college student at Fresno State and have [had] no affiliation with the group in over 30 years," Bustamante told The Journal.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he thought Bustamante, Davis and Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger are all friends of the Jewish community and supporters of Israel. Hier, whom Bustamante appointed to serve on the One California Commission, applauded the lieutenant governor’s hard work and dedication and his rise from humble beginnings in the San Joaquin Valley to the pinnacle of state politics.

Hier said Bustamante should do more to clarify his views about MEChA. Current MEChA chapters still use the group’s 1960s symbol of an eagle clutching dynamite.

Hertzberg said he thought the MEChA flap was little more than an attempt for political opponents to tarnish Bustamante.

Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, echoed the former assembly speaker. Welinsky, who has known Bustamante for a decade and talks to him monthly, said the lieutenant governor has repeatedly helped his Jewish constituents.

After a white supremacist group set fire to three Sacramento-area synagogues, for instance, Bustamante told a group of concerned citizens that "we are all Jews," Welinsky said. Bustamante also scrounged up nine passes to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and gave them to Jewish groups so members could watch Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew tapped as Al Gore’s running mate, deliver a keynote speech.

Overall, Bustamante has failed to make much of an impression on Jewish voters and doesn’t electrify the community like such other politicians as Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton. Even so, Jews typically vote Democratic, and will probably choose Bustamante over the actor Schwarzenegger and conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, he said.

Even Jews expected to vote for Bustamante seem more passionately against the recall than for him. Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said he viewed Bustamante’s candidacy as a "Democratic backup plan" but thought his candidacy was almost an afterthought.

"I think the central issue is not the replacement issue, but the recall itself," he said. "The recall is such a bad idea and so poisonous to government that that’s been my main focus."

Not all Jewish Democrats are sold on Bustamante. The lieutenant governor has taken millions from Indian tribes, which has drawn unfavorable comparisons to Davis’ fundraising profess and political pandering. A Superior Court judge recently ruled that Bustamante had broken campaign laws by soliciting large gifts of more than $21,200 for an old campaign fund and then transferring $4 million into a new fund to pay for advertising.

Bustamante said that without donor support he could not compete against the "millionaire" candidates, presumably alluding to Schwarzenegger. Publicly financing elections would "alleviate some of the pressure candidates feel to raise the large sums to remain competitive," he said.

Carmen Warschaw, former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party and a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said Bustamante’s candidacy has left her cold. Warschaw wouldn’t divulge how she plans to vote, except to say she doesn’t support Bustamante, McClintock or Davis.

In an attitude shared by many Jews, Lee Wallach said Davis deserved to serve out his term. Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California, added he would vote for Bustamante just in case, although his heart was with Davis.

Bustamante "has not had as long and as close a relationship with [the community] as Davis has," he said. "But Bustamante will still pass the type of progressive legislation that is of interest to both Jews and environmentalists."

19 Years Ago: Ask Yourself God’s Questions

When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?

This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?

God asks four questions:

Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?

Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.

In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?

Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?

God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?

God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?

In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?

Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?

This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?

Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?

Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”

Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?

Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.


New Israel Fund Honors Rabbi Susan Laemmle

Last week, Rabbi Richard Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, introduced to the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Pittsburgh a new Reform movement manifesto. And according to Rabbi Susan Laemmle, that’s not his only contribution to Reform. For without Rabbi Levy — her mentor and former superior — there may never have been a Rabbi Laemmle.

But it is the former English teacher who is now being recognized for her community devotion. On Sunday, June 6, New Israel Fund (NIF) will honor Laemmle during its seventh Tzedakah Dinner at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

For the past three years, Laemmle has been dean of religious life at USC, before which the Reform rabbi served four years as the university’s Hillel director. If Laemmle’s name sounds familiar, it may be because her father, the late Kurt Laemmle, and her uncle Max, founded the Laemmle Theatres chain, years after creating and selling what is now Universal Studios. While the home of her youth was always a source of cultural and Zionist pride, Laemmle did not become observant until her 20s.

Laemmle’s history with NIF goes back to 1987, when her recommendation helped lead to the hiring of the nonprofit organization’s first Los Angeles director. NIF, through its subsidiary Shatil (“seedling” in Hebrew), provides funding and training for hundreds of organizations that address Israeli social issues, including National Council for the Child; Association for Civil Rights in Israel; Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development; Interns for Peace; and outreach and support groups throughout Israel.

While studying at the rabbinate in New York, Laemmle became acquainted and impressed with NIF’s presentations.

“The programs were not pat…they looked at issues honestly. I don’t like hype, and they didn’t look at Israel like it was some sort of [infallible] icon,” says Laemmle.

Says David Moses, NIF’s Los Angeles Regional Director, of Laemmle: “She has been a vocal advocate [and has helped] raise the profile of NIF and the community…. She continues to believe strongly in the mission of the fund and the work that we do…building bridges between communities.”

Laemmle is very candid about her early 1990s failed attempt to make <I>aliyah<$>. Although she ultimately could not carve out a life in Israel for herself, that doesn’t mean that she will ever give up investing in the Jewish state’s future.

Says Laemmle, “I do what I can from where I am.”

For more information on New Israel Fund, contact the Los Angeles office at (310) 282-0300.